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50 Best Albums of 2015

Kendrick fought the power, Adele soared higher, D’Angelo shocked the world and more

2015

Illustration by Ryan Casey

As the curtain falls on 2015, it might be hard to remember any albums released this year besides Adele's record-breaking, generation-uniting, triple-platinum-and-counting 25. But there was so much more to hear. Kendrick Lamar's Molotov-cocktail-tossing hip-hop, D'Angelo’s razor-sharp R&B and Kamasi Washington's restorative jazz all made major statements, feeling like three crucial dispatches from the #BlackLivesMatter protests under three black-and-white covers. Over on the pop charts, Halsey celebrated the "New Americana" (rhymes with "Biggie and Nirvana"), and some of 2015's best albums upended the old one: Upstart Chris Stapleton sang country songs like Sam Cooke, Jason Isbell made roots-rock that shouts out Sylvia Plath, and both Rhiannon Giddens and Bob Dylan took turns running the American songbook through their unique prisms. This year saw some fantastic releases from Rock & Roll Hall of Famers (Keith Richards, Don Henley, Darlene Love), along with a few strong returns from the alt-rock heroes of the Nineties (Blur, Sleater-Kinney, Wilco). R&B innovators like the Weeknd and Miguel walked a reverb-saturated lane into the future and past, while rappers like Drake, Future and Rae Sremmrurd brought cohesive, immediate statements for the Internet's insatiable now. Here are the 50 records that defined our year.

50 Best Albums of 2015
21

Chris Stapleton, ‘Traveller’

Chris Stapleton has spent the past decade writing radio-friendly songs for a who's who of country superstars. But on his debut album, Stapleton digs deeper and gets personal, leading a master class in old-school country songcraft with 14 songs full of weary life lessons and whiskey-induced heartbreak. It's old-school country mixed with Southern rock, delivered in a voice like a soul singer's and with no flashy production. Traveller may feel old – well, that's the point. From autobiographical weepers such as "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" to the soaring, arena-ready "Parachute," every track goes straight for the emotional jugular and give a glimpse inside a wildly introspective mind. Acoustic ballads like "Whiskey and You" and "Daddy Doesn't Pray Anymore" provide the highlights, with Stapleton's soulful Kentucky baritone taking center stage. With a recent viral duet with Justin Timberlake and a handful of CMAs now under his belt, the secret is finally out: Stapleton is a major talent.  

50 Best Albums of 2015
20

Don Henley, ‘Cass County’

The Eagles singer-drummer's first solo album in 15 years is a record of minimal strumming, steel-guitar raindrops and warming vocal blends – country music the way Henley heard it the first time around in Cass County, the East Texas region where he grew up. Written and produced with ex-Tom Petty drummer Stan Lynch, Cass County is quietly, defiantly purist – absolutely free of millennial-country glitz and vernacular. The long line of celebrity guests – many of them women, such as Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and Alison Krauss – mostly serve in the backing harmonies. (A notable exception: Henley, Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger exchanging verses in a cover of Tift Merritt's "Bramble Rose.") But Henley is also a determined modernist, and his character studies and matured reflection in songs like "Waiting on Tables," "Praying for Rain" and "Take a Picture of This" are loaded with quietly visceral immediacy, contemporary portraits of everyday crisis and the search for solace. After more than 40 years in L.A.-outlaw country, Henley has finally made an album of stories that sound like home.

50 Best Albums of 2015
19

Kurt Vile, ‘B’lieve I’m Goin Down…’

Kurt Vile is a master of stoner-rock exploration and cotton-brained existential whimsy, and this was his most introspective tapestry yet. "It's hard to think with a squashed brain," he sings on "Dust Bunnies." Or is it? Vile spaces out brilliantly all over the place, from the cobwebbed banjo reverie "I'm An Outlaw" to ringing guitar escapades like "Pretty Pimpin'" to the droney spaciousness of "Bad Omens." B'lieve I'm Goin' Down… digs deep into the folk roots that undergird his signature finger-picking style. On "Stand Inside," his acoustic playing evokes Simon & Garfunkel as he offers a homebody's come-on: "That's my good girl/Whole world turnin' on my couch." That kind of living-room intimacy also comes out on piano-led tunes like "Lost My Head There" and "Life Like This," where squashed-brained philosophizing seems like a wonderful parlor game and couch-surfing sounds like an excellent vacation option.

50 Best Albums of 2015
18

Boz Scaggs, ‘A Fool to Care’

Scaggs delivered a concise history of Southern soul on A Fool to Care, the most recent in a string of albums built around musical themes (see 2013's Memphis). There's a heavy dose of New Orleans strut, with takes on classics by Fats Domino and Huey "Piano" Smith and a version of white-soul singer Bobby Charles' "Small Town Talk." Scaggs' take on Al Green's "Full of Fire" recalls the disco-soul of his own Seventies hit Silk Degrees, and there are detours to Philly (the Spinners' "Love Don't Love Nobody") and Chicago (the Impressions' "I'm So Proud"). Aided by an ace band that includes guitarist Ray Parker Jr., bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Steve Jordan, who also produced the album, Scaggs is at home in every style, tying each selection together with his warm, textured singing. The lone original composition is "Hell To Pay," a rugged blues duet with Bonnie Raitt. A Fool to Care closes beautifully with another duet, a stately, deeply-felt take on the Band's "Whispering Pines," where Scaggs is joined by Lucinda Williams – not a soul standard, exactly, but it sure feels like one.          

50 Best Albums of 2015
17

Keith Richards, ‘Crosseyed Heart’

The Rolling Stones guitarist's first studio album outside his day job in 23 years opens with the short title fragment: Richards picking and singing a rare acoustic blues. It is rock's most enduring outlaw evoking the Delta ghosts and early-country spirits that still haunt and inspire his life and band – and a perfect entry into a record that is at once loud, ragged delight, driven by Richards' trademark barbed-treble riffs, and shot through with a surprising, reflective urgency. "They laid it on thick/They couldn't make it stick," Richards sings with gravelly defiance in "Nothing on Me." The guitarist also concedes the mounting price of age in "Amnesia," a song about fading strength and memories. Richards made Crosseyed Heart with reliable old friends including his late-Eighties side crew the X-Pensive Winos, singer Aaron Neville and the Stones' late saxophonist Bobby Keys, whose robust playing, among his last on record, underscores Richards' admission here that there is an end to every ride –  and his determination to make every mile count.

50 Best Albums of 2015
16

Jack Ü, ‘Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü’

The world's top beat freaks pulled off a remarkable feat with their superduo collaboration: Instead of bringing a little EDM flavor to pop, they made some of pop's biggest stars hop over the fence to their mind-bending EDM fiesta. The big hit was "Where Are Ü Now," the inescapable single that redeemed Justin Bieber's career. But beyond that high, Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü hangs together surprisingly well as an album, standing as one of the most accessible and gloriously turnt-up sets of the Electric Daisy era. It's got a soca adventure ("Jungle Bae" featuring Bunji Garlin and MX Prime), a dreamy, ethereal ballad ("To Ü" featuring AlunaGeorge) and a quirky, underrated trap jam with 2 Chainz ("Febreze"). Taken together, the album packed one of dance music's biggest punches in 2015 and pointed to a new way forward for the EDM revolution.

50 Best Albums of 2015
15

Father John Misty, ‘I Love You, Honeybear’

The stylish bearded singer-songwriter of the year, Josh Tillman, made an artistic breakthrough with his second album as Father John Misty Tillman's songs were just as ornately pretty as the music he'd had a hand in creating as drummer in neo-folk golden-throats Fleet Foxes – but where his old band went for CSNY grandeur, Tillman's solo material cuts lush melodies with the biting ironies of Seventies L.A. dons like Randy Newman, John Phillips and Harry Nilsson. "Save me, white Jesus…/They gave me a useless education/And a subprime loan on a Craftsman home," he sings on the somber piano ballad "Bored In the U.S.A." From the aimless ecstatic drift of "When You're Smiling And Astride Me" to the aching countrified lope of "Nothing Good Ever Happens At the Goddamn Thirsty Crow," Tillman always found the perfect musical backdrop for his evocations of love and desire gone off the rails. His wit can have a vicious edge (his takedown of a pretentious young woman "The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apt," drew feminist fire). But even at their most barbed, his songs come with such lush melodies you couldn't help but admire their uncanny beauty.

50 Best Albums of 2015
14

Wilco, ‘Star Wars’

Wilco turned 20 this year, and they celebrated in style with their best record in a decade, touching on everything that makes them great: refined noise, genre-bending sonic weaves, easy-riding car-radio tunefulness and Jeff Tweedy's honeyed songcraft – often all in the same song. As its brilliantly timely title implies, Star Wars was all about rediscovering bedrock pleasures, with echoes of the bandshell-in-the-summer fun and ease of albums like 1995's A.M. and 1999's Summerteeth seasoned by years of life experience and musical growth. From the torqued up glam-rock shoogity-oogity of "Random Noise Generator" to the sky-writing Wowee Zowee-era Pavement guitar action of "The Joke Explained" to the country-rock confection "Taste the Ceiling" to the tight-gyred free-rock workout "You Satellite," the songs flowed together like a greatest hits album, except every one of them was brand new. It was hard to not hear echoes of the Grateful Dead when Tweedy sang about generating "a miracle every once in awhile," and that's exactly the kind of American institution Wilco is turning into. 20 more years, please.

50 Best Albums of 2015
13

Tame Impala, ‘Currents’

Tame Impala's Kevin Parker is the sort of psychedelic studio wizard who can make finger snaps sound like a spaced-out revelation. The Aussie dreamer packed Currents full of weightless vocals and synthesized funk, for a set that's both blissed-out and mournful, like a set of diary entries from an astronaut floating off into oblivion. Three years ago, Tame Impala broke through with the foot-stomping beats and dirty glam guitar of "Elephant." But this time out, Parker dialed down the amps and pumped up the keyboards. Songs like "Yes I'm Changing" and "'Cause I'm a Man" are slow-moving tales of personal metamorphosis, and when guitar thunder does break out on "Eventually," it quickly gives way to sunshine-y organ. Song after song address relationship challenges, but the album closer, "New Person, Same Old Mistakes," suggests Parker has an easier time remaking his music than himself. That musical rethink, though, is expansive, resulting in wide-screen adventures like "Let It Happen," which jumps off from a melody lifted from the Supremes, then sails into the cosmos, where everything is lonely but beautiful.

50 Best Albums of 2015
12

Lana Del Rey, ‘Honeymoon’

"We both know that it's not fashionable to love me," Lana Del Rey intones at the beginning of her third album. It's quite a way to kick off a Honeymoon, and exactly the kind of sultry gloominess we've come to expect and love from the high priestess of moody torch-pop. After injecting some garage-y guitars into 2014's Dan Auerbach-produced Ultraviolence, Del Rey returned to the cinematic trip-hop of her star-making 2012 debut Born to Die, balancing catchy slow-burn come-ons like "Freaks" and the hit single "High By the Beach" with artier moments like "Burnt Norton," her dreamy recitation of a T.S. Eliot poem, and the goth-soul Nina Simone/Animals cover "Don't Let Me Be Understood." Her gauzily distracted Peggy Lee persona and coolly sensual vocals were as alluringly provocative as ever ("you're so art deco baby out on the floor," she sings on "Art Deco"). But it was the haunting sense of heartache and aloneness in her evocations of the emulsified L.A. high-life that made Honeymoon such a devastating listen.

50 Best Albums of 2015
11

Sleater-Kinney, ‘No Cities to Love’

It was the surprise comeback nobody saw coming – not even diehard fans had any idea the three punk women of Sleater-Kinney were back in the studio, after nearly 10 years apart. But not only did the Nineties' fiercest band spring a new album on the world, they made it one of their toughest and loudest ever. No Cities To Love charges with a renewed sense of urgency in songs like "Price Tag" and "A New Wave," in Corin Tucker's sky-scraping high notes, Carrie Brownstein's kiss-off sneer, Janet Weiss' gut-punch drums. The songs are full of humor (which figures, given Brownstein's rebirth as a comedian on Portlandia) but also rage, facing up to adult questions. "Hope's a burden or it sets you free," they sing in the title tune – a line Bruce Springsteen could have written. It would have been easier to spend their reunion tour just playing the oldies, but what mattered more to them was speaking up about right now. After all these years, Sleater-Kinney still sound gloriously untamed. And they prove Brownstein wasn't just kidding on Portlandia: The dream of the Nineties is alive and well.

50 Best Albums of 2015
10

Blur, ‘The Magic Whip’

Blur recorded most of their first original-quartet album since 1999 in Hong Kong, and named it after a brand of Chinese firecracker – an apt allusion to the explosive jolts and emotional shrapnel embedded in the Kinks-like stroll of "Lonesome Street" and the Martian-desert glow of the closing ballad "Mirrorball." In the lost-in-orbit dream "Thought I Was a Spaceman," singer Damon Albarn sounds quietly desperate for liftoff in a gorgeous galaxy of silvery guitar and milky-reverb electronics. It's an album about urgent motion without lasting connection – "Log in your name and pray 24 hours," Albarn sings in "New World Towers" – made by a band that has rediscovered its exploratory bond and pop-song grip. Twenty years after the peak of Brit-pop, Blur are back in style, with substance.

50 Best Albums of 2015
9

The Arcs, ‘Yours, Dreamily’

Apparently Black Keys singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach isn't busy enough with that band, his Nashville studio Easy Eye and production jobs for Dr. John, Lana Del Rey and Cage the Elephant, among others. His debut album with the Arcs – a loose combo of friends and associates including drummer Richard Swift of the Shins and multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels of the New York neo-soul production team Truth and Soul – is a riveting extension of the Keys' progressive-blues aesthetic. "Stay in My Corner" and "Velvet Ditch" are turbulent R&B noir, spiked with psychedelic flourishes; "Put a Flower in Your Pocket" is spectral hip-hop coated in crusty mellotron. Auerbach laces the spare, loping ballad "Chains of Love" with the vocal sensuality of the female mariachi ensemble Mariachi Flor de Toloache and drops a prairie-doo-wop hook in "Cold Companion," sounding like the Eagles had just busted through the saloon door. With the fun and promise in details like that, the Arcs could be a band with a future – if Auerbach can find the time.

50 Best Albums of 2015
8

Various Artists, ‘Hamilton: Original Broadway Soundtrack’

A nearly three-hour Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton ("the ten dollar founding father without a father") might, on paper, sound like a tough feat to pull off. Writer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also plays the lead role, made it look easy with a book of modern hip-hop and R&B songs that could've been played on the radio. Even if you didn't get to see the show, the soundtrack album still works as a fantastically fun ride of its own. It helps that the Caribbean-born orphan who became our first Treasury Secretary lived a perfect hip-hop life – hustling his way from poverty to "young, scrappy and hungry" New York success story, fighting a bitter North-South regional battle with Thomas Jefferson and finally going down at the hands of punk-ass Aaron Burr when beef turned lethal. In Hamilton, the complex policy debates of the early Republic are rendered in verses worthy of Kanye. But along with being outrageously thrilling living history, it projects brilliantly into our own election season. As Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette sing after whooping ass on the British: "Immigrants, we get the job done." Take notice, King Donald.

50 Best Albums of 2015
7

Jason Isbell, ‘Something More Than Free’

Jason Isbell chronicled hard-won sobriety and marriage on 2013's breakthrough Southeastern. Instead of remaking that album on this follow-up, the most thoughtful roots-rock singer-songwriter of his generation delivered a stunning chronicle of Southern life, full of unforgettable characters and indelible images like "Jack and Coke in your mama's car/You were reading The Bell Jar." Isbell's subjects are overworked and underprivileged – a bored police officer who kills time pulling over women, factory workers "just happy to have the work," old high school girlfriends who took the wrong turns. The best is "Speed Trap Town," a Nebraska-steeped acoustic ballad about a guy who sneaks a bottle into a high-school game and finally decides to leave town. It's hard to believe he ever really escapes.

50 Best Albums of 2015
6

Courtney Barnett, ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’

The year's best debut came from a 27-year-old Australian singer-songwriter who marries the observational wit of Jerry Seinfeld, the word-ninja flow of Bob Dylan circa '65 and the guitar poetry of Stephen Malkmus. As its title implies, these are songs wrought from a specific type of everyday quarter-life malaise – one brilliant song is about the stuff that runs through your mind when you can't fall asleep, another is about a botched meet-cute at a swimming pool. But Barnett's ability to pack her songs about nothing with vivid imagery and insight, literary detail and political insight, is astonishing.  "Jen insists that we buy organic vegetables/And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first/A little pesticide can't hurt," she sings on the springy rocker "Dead Fox," which somehow morphs into a hilarious, catchy driving tune. Songs like "Pedestrian At Best" and "Debbie Downer" update the rich tradition of self-doubting Nineties alt-rock; other moments, like the heartbreaking "Depreston," have a wisdom – about aging, class anxiety, economics and relationships – that seems almost impossible for someone who's only beginning to find the depth of her artistic gifts. All signs suggest those gifts could be bottomless.

50 Best Albums of 2015
5

The Weeknd, ‘Beauty Behind the Madness’

Canada's Abel Tesfaye redefined what it means to be an R&B auteur with his breakthrough second LP. After a series of mysterious mixtape releases built around weeded-out goth moodiness (and one half-baked major-label debut, in 2011), he went for full-on Top 40 grandeur this time, without diluting any of his eerie allure. The sumptuous Max Martin joint "Can't Feel My Face" got America dancing to a sex-as-cocaine metaphor, thanks to a joyful hook Michael Jackson could have moonwalked to; "In the Night" amped up the violent undercurrents of MJ circa Bad while still feeling like a party; and bleary ballads like "Earned It" and "The Hills" spun gossamer sensuality into unlikely hit singles. Who else but the Weeknd could make a line like "Only my mother could love me for me" work as pillow talk? It's just that kind of raw honesty that makes him such a revolutionary player.

50 Best Albums of 2015
4

D’Angelo and the Vanguard, ‘Black Messiah’

Does this guy know how to pick a moment, or what? D'Angelo dropped his first LP since 2000 in the final days of 2014, as his big statement on America in a year of deep racial turmoil. At first it might have sounded too good to be true, but after a year of listening, Black Messiah stands even taller. The songs take their time to build a plush, meditative live-band soul groove in the vein of Sly Stone, Prince or Al Green circa The Belle Album. D speaks his piece about police violence in "The Charade" ("All we wanted was a chance to talk/'Stead we only got outlined in chalk"), whistles the blues hook of "The Door" and unleashes his inner guitar hero in "1000 Deaths." The showstopper is "Another Life" – six minutes of piano, sitar and falsetto, stretching into D'Angelo's infinite future. Even if we have to wait another 15 years for the next chapter, it'll take at least that long to truly absorb Black Messiah.

50 Best Albums of 2015
3

Drake, ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’

What a time to be Drake. Toronto's finest enjoyed a hell of a year – his beef with Meek Mill turned out to be the most lopsided rap battle since LL Cool J crushed Canibus, and he dominated playlists from "Know Yourself" in the winter to "Hotline Bling" in the fall. It all started with this, his purest hip-hop move in ages, which he called a mixtape even though it sold through the roof. No pop hooks, no romance, just a tightly sequenced set of rap cuts where he plays directly to his base by venting his anger and paranoia. He disses his own record label and kvetches about groupies as only he can: "I got bitches asking me about the code for the Wi-Fi." He even complains about driving his girl to her bar exam through the snow – perhaps the most Drake-ish grouse ever. This is the darkest record he's ever made, yet it easily cleared a million copies sold in a year when virtually no one else did. Even when Aubrey Drake Graham downplays his pop side, he runs the game.

50 Best Albums of 2015
2

Adele, ’25’

The feverish four-year wait for the follow-up to Adele's triple-platinum blockbuster, 21, was unlike anything we've seen this decade – and she didn't disappoint on this thunderous triumph. 25 tells the story of a young woman making her uneasy peace with adulthood, like Carole King on Tapestry. The pop-savvy "Water Under the Bridge" and the soaring piano ballad "Remedy" take on relationship drama with realist fire, while the lighthearted "Sweetest Devotion" dances right into ecstasy. Adele and her A-list co-conspirators (Max Martin, Tobias Jesso Jr.) fly from drum-cannon Eighties balladry to classic gospel and blues to the kind of piano power surges that are her epic signature, holding it all together with the nuanced, towering vocal performances that have already made her iconic. "If you're not the one for me/Then how come I can bring you to your knees?" she sings. On 25, she does it over and over again.

50 Best Albums of 2015
1

Kendrick Lamar, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Musically, lyrically and emotionally, Kendrick Lamar's third album is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece – a sprawling epic that's both the year's most bumptious party music and its most gripping therapy session. A rap superstar at last, after years on the underground grind, Lamar wrestles with the depression and survivor's guilt that followed his fame and success by turning to heroes from Ralph Ellison and Richard Pryor to Smokey Robinson and Kris Kross to Nelson Mandela and Tupac. He lives large. He contains multitudes.

The pleasures and rewards of To Pimp a Butterfly aren't easy. Leading the charge to bring live instrumentation back to hip-hop, Lamar and producer Sounwave call forth a sound as ambitious, free-associative and challenging as his rhymes: sci-fi funk on "Wesley's Theory," snatches of free jazz on "For Free?," steady-rolling G-funk on "King Kunta." Over all this, Lamar – his voice raw or multitracked into its own chorus – interrogates himself and a country where everything from his ancestors to his art has always been for sale. He repeatedly returns to a moment when he found himself alone in a hotel room, distraught and screaming. "I didn't want to self-destruct," he says. "So I went running for answers." The search is never-ending.

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